Oilsands employer drops the gloves, recruits for talent at hockey games

Labour shortage has western provinces facing off against each other

At a typical Western Hockey League (WHL) game, the arena is packed with men aged 25 to 44 who are enthusiastic, have a competitive spirit and like to have fun — exactly the demographic MEG Energy wants working at its oilsands, according to Taryn Bolder, manager of corporate communications.

In February, Calgary-based MEG launched a recruitment campaign at WHL games across British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan. It sponsored game nights and set up a booth staffed with HR professionals, executives and field staff to talk to WHL fans about upcoming opportunities.

“There’s a genuine interest and there’s even a basic education in terms of ‘What are the oilsands?’ and ‘What goes on up there?’” said Bolder. “We’re not only having conversations with qualified candidates but we’re also speaking with their families — their wives, grandmas, aunts — so we’re having the chance to educate them.”

MEG also had in-game advertising, including a ceremonial puck drop with MEG executives, various announcements throughout the game about MEG being on-site and signage on the rink boards. The company also handed out company-branded pucks to all the fans. And for every shot on goal by the home team, MEG donated between $25 and $50 to a charity chosen by the team, said Bolder.

This year, MEG is recruiting for 200 new positions to add to its 500-employee base, she said. It is mostly looking for engineers, skilled operators, trades and construction workers, and procurement and supply chain management workers. And while HR is still going through some of the resumés from the WHL campaign — which wrapped up in April — a number of the positions have already been filled, said Bolder.

The majority of the positions were for work at MEG’s Christina Lake project, located 150 kilometres southeast of Fort McMurray, Alta. Most employees at this location work seven days on, seven days off and the company flies them to and from the site.

“The seven-in-seven is a really great shift in terms of what’s available in the oilsands,” said Bolder. “A lot of our staff really enjoy it because it gives them more time with families when they’re off those seven days. It’s one of the prime shifts you want to have when you’re working in one of those situations.”

The 10 cities MEG visited during the recruitment campaign were chosen based on a research study the company conducted with Statistics Canada to determine which areas were heavy on the type of labour MEG was trying to attract, said Bolder.

In B.C., they recruited in Vancouver, Victoria, Kelowna, Kamloops and Prince George; in Alberta, Lethbridge, Medicine Hat and Red Deer; and in Saskatchewan, Saskatoon and Regina.

“People can live in their community so if we hire someone out of Kelowna or out of Saskatoon, they remain in their community, they’re able to fly into our site and then bring their paycheque back home, so it’s helping those communities that are maybe on a bit of a rebound or are slightly depressed,” said Bolder.

But Jennifer Brandle-McCall, CEO of the Prince George Chamber of Commerce in B.C., said she does not agree her city is lagging behind in the economic recovery and she is worried about losing local talent.

“My immediate reaction was to be very protective and worried for our local labour force,” she said. “All of the businesses I talk to that are involved in the natural resource industry say they are already experiencing a labour crunch… and in three to five years, when some projects are coming into fruition, we’re really going to be in a serious situation when it comes to labour.”

While Brandle-McCall hasn’t seen this type of recruiting before, she suspected it would happen and is concerned she will see more of it as the skilled labour shortage heats up, she said.

The Alberta oilsands, which employed more than 20,000 workers in 2011, is projected to grow its workforce by 73 per cent by 2021, according to a report by the Petroleum Human Resources Council of Canada. Some oilsands operations and occupations are expected to add more than 100 per cent of their current workforce by 2021, according to the council’s report Oil Sands Labour Market Outlook to 2021.

“And that’s just looking at the growing size of the industry,” said Cheryl Knight, executive director and CEO of the council, located in Calgary. “When you layer onto that retirements, which are estimated to be an additional 6,000 people, without even looking at turnover, the industry is going to need to hire over 21,000 people in an industry that is only about 20,000 in size right now.”

These daunting numbers are forcing oilsands employers to look at more “creative, different, ramped-up initiatives” for their recruitment methods and to expand beyond Alberta, she said.

And the Fort McMurray-Edmonton-Calgary corridor is pretty well covered by major oilsands employers that are recruiting in those core centres, so other employers need to look elsewhere, said Bolder.

“It breaks down that feeling of co-operation in economic development — it sort of pits the provinces against one another,” said Brandle-McCall. “In B.C., we would start to view Alberta as the competitor, a province we can’t work with, that’s working against us instead and we don’t see it that way.”

“Poaching” between provinces is being used as a short-term solution but it will be detrimental in the long term because it is basically taking from one business to supply another, she said.

“That is how (companies) are satisfying their labour needs right now and they know it’s just a holding pattern and they know they can’t sustain this because it isn’t a good practice, so they’re looking for other solutions.”

Brandle-McCall is working with economic development agencies and other stakeholders in Prince George to develop a strategy to keep workers in the city. One aspect is to encourage local employers to focus on the family unit to recruit and retain employees since the oilsands often see workers separated from their families, she said.

Employers should also promote the other benefits they offer aside from pay, said Brandle-McCall.

“Wages are a big part of it but when you look at gen X and Y, they’re also highly motivated by other factors, so flexibility, benefits, the working relations that they have with their co-workers, the perks that come along with the job — that becomes also very important to those generations, in particular, and they’re not willing to give it all up for top dollar.”

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